Beginner's Heart

Beginner's Heart

Is the Middle Path a Buddhist myth…?

The other day I was ranting about some injustice, and the way people were so unbalanced in their perceptions, and my husband stopped me cold.

“You know the Middle Path is just a Buddhist myth, don’t you?” he asked, only half in jest.

WHAT! It’s like he told me, when I was a vulnerable 6-year-old, that there was no Santa Claus. No tooth fairy. No happily ever after… Of course there’s a middle path, and people just need to be shown it to walk it happily.

Riiiight. Just like everyone loves Yo Yo Ma’s cello… (don’t they?).

In fact, that brings to mind the Buddhist analogy of the Middle Way~ lute strings tuned neither too tightly nor too loosely, but tuned just right to produce music. It’s a lovely metaphor, one I return to when I can’t seem to make music from my own tightly strung self-righteousness. More of a skreee than a song…

It’s hard to meet people in their good intentions. I’m thinking of a family  member on my Facebook, w/ whom I disagree on most things: politics, faith, environment, business… In fact, I think about all we would agree on is that we love our family :). So when he asks me loaded political questions, I try to respond w/ lovingkindness. Even when I know he’s going to come right back at me, and not get my point.

Because it’s what Buddhists try to do. It’s what we all need more of: people who will meet us in our good intentions, as he does me, as I try to him. I’m not very good at it. It’s what this whole blog project is about, why it began in the first place. I get excited, go off not-even-half-cocked, and blow :). So I decided to write about how we (I) might learn to be a better Buddhist, a better Unitarian, more practiced in lovingkindness.

In a recent issue of Friends Journal, there was a piece about ‘meeting at the center,’ and how we can hew to our own paths, while still meeting in love & respect in the middle. So that, for instance, Christians who find Buddhism heretical may still engage with me in our mutual respect for kindness, for social justice. And Buddhists who believe the Buddha is a deity can still find my reverence for the man respectful. We don’t have to agree, but we relinquish the desire to feel superior for our own beliefs, to  wield our spiritual beliefs arrogantly, as weapons.

That’s hard. But unlike my husband’s teasing question, I don’t believe that the Middle Path is a myth. Nor is it only for Buddhists. It’s where far more of us should walk. Even if some of us (me!) are still taking very baby steps…

 

Happy (Buddhist) New Year!

In Buddhism, it’s about the moon. At least for New Year’s. :) Mahayana Buddhism — the Buddhism of Vietnam, India, China, Japan, Korea, and Tibet, among other countries — celebrates New Year’s  Day the first full moon of January. This year on January 9th.

However, Theravadin Buddhists (Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and others) celebrate New Year’s the 1st full moon of April. And different countries also factor in to the equation: in China, for example, the New Year also is lunar-based, but celebrated at yet another time, often influencing Buddhist New Year celebrations as well.

In all Buddhist traditions, it’s a time for reflection as well as festivities. Traditions are dusted off from years past, and great attention is paid to preparing for the year to come. Houses are cleaned, new clothes are chosen carefully, and foods take on significance (don’t cut your noodles: they signify longevity!).

But always, honour is paid to the neighbourhood temple, to the monks and to the Buddha. A temple visit, carrying food for the monks, may also include a renewing of the Five Precepts, and possibly three prostrations in honour of the Buddha, the Sangha, and the Dharma.

In the essentials,in other words, Buddhist New Year is much like Christian New Year — a time to resolve to better ourselves, to be kinder, gentler and more observant of what matters in the world. Not a bad thing to celebrate whenever it rolls around!

 

An American Buddhist New Year ~

Few Americans are Buddhist — between 2.5 and 4 million, according to at least one source. A similar number are of Chinese ancestry — a scant 3 million. This makes the celebration of Buddhist New Year in the US a kind of moveable feast :).

So if you’d like to celebrate Buddhist New Year in the US, you have choices: some American Buddhists celebrate in January — upcoming Monday the 9th. Others fall in w/ Chinese New Year (this year January 23rd), including the wearing of lucky red and the eating of lucky foods. And still others celebrate New Year’s as the rest of the country already has — on January 1st.

But because of the influence on American Buddhism of Theravadin countries like Việt Nam and Thailand, many Buddhists celebrate the religious new year in conjunction with Chinese New Year, in customs if not actual date.  Whichever date you choose, here are some things to do to get ready for the new year:

Clean your altar.Wipe down all the surfaces, empty your incense burner and put out fresh incense. Gently clean any statues. On my home altar, I have a gold Buddha medal my husband brought back from a temple in Japan. I take it out of its sleeve and wipe it gently. I wipe down my table. I carefully rinse my Kuanyin figure, and dust  the brightly coloured  green Tara meditation card I use for a focus. I empty my incense burner of ash and unburned incense, and then I put everything back in place.

If you don’t have a home altar, this is a good year to set one up. It needn’t cost much: a space on a kitchen shelf, as one of my friends has done, will suffice. And if you don’t already have a Buddha statue, print out a nice one on your printer.  Or take a picture at a museum and use that. Fill a small bowl w/ sand and stick an incense stick in it. Add your mala and voilà! An altar :).

If you want to be a bit more elaborate, an altar cloth is nice, and protects the surface of your table or shelf from incense ash and the occasional spark (my table has a few burn marks, I confess).  And you may want to spring for a really lovely Buddha or Kuanyin — they can cost as much as you want to spend. :)

The point is to celebrate the New Year — whichever day you choose — by honouring your commitment to be more mindful, kinder and more compassionate. That’s what is really important. Whatever helps you come to that mindset is the best of New Year preparations ~

 

 

phosphate-free dishwashing detergent and post-holiday clarity ~

We don’t use phosphates in our dishwasher. They cause algae bloom, and lower the oxygen in water, suffocating fish if the bloom is excessive. But their replacements — phosphate-free detergents —  transform your originally clear and/or white dishes into cloudy, powder-covered trophies of environmentalism.

I’m making peace with that. But I had this epiphany today, as I made a blueberry smoothie in the new blender. Trust me, it has to do w/ beginner’s heart :).

Pre-holiday, my husband bought me a new blender — breast-cancer pink, in honour of my sister’s survivorship. (We were still using the blender from our wedding!)  The new  blender jar  is a lovely clear polycarbonate — so clear it’s like looking through mountain air. It almost disappears between the pink lid and the pink base.

I’m washing it in the sink, right after emptying the dishwasher of the phosphate-deprived glassware, each piece clouded and fogged w/ powdery residue. And I stop, as the whole Buddha-in-the-dishes realisation hits me. I know, it’s obvious. But somehow, seeing the crystal clear blender makes it real, tangible: with the accretions of life in the fast lane, too much work, and not enough outside breathing, I’ve become clouded.  The holidays, w/ their Amazon wish lists and lengthy to-do notes and laundry and dishes and cooking and wrapping and mindlessness have only exacerbated it all. Like the glasses given to me — once transparent, now pitted and fogged with salts — I’m dimmer and far less clear.

So I’m trying to figure out what the environmentally correct spiritual equivalent of phosphates is. There’s a Tibetan parable, about a stone picked up by a monk. He shows it to his student, then dips it in water. For a moment the stone’s colours bloom: mica and garnet in the metamorphosed schist. But as the water evaporates, the stone dulls, and returns to dull grey. Maybe all I need is something as ordinary as water. As gentle, as powerful. Something to bring me back to my original nature. Like the breath, followed to its resting place :). Or the contemporary koan of a blender jar, phosphates, and our inner Buddha nature…

 

 

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